The Ten Guidelines
The college freshmen I teach may be forgiven for having a shaky grasp of the Bible. Some have never read a page of it; others have absorbed it in highly diluted form. So naturally they say things like, "Oh, I thought the Ten Commandments were more like guidelines." But in my experience, they change their tune after actually reading the Bible (especially when translated by Robert Alter and Reynolds Price). Believers and non-believers alike are struck by its beauty, oddness, and intimidating severity.
The diluted form is still out there, though. In 2002 the newly launched (and unfortunately named) Crusader Entertainment, backed by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, released "Joshua," its first overtly "Christian" film, through a subsidiary called Epiphany Films. "Joshua" tackles a challenging topic: the arrival of Jesus in small town America. But it has nothing to say, either about Jesus or about small town America. Instead, it depicts Jesus as a nice fellow being nice to already nice folks who then become even nicer. The one person who is not so nice, a Catholic priest intent upon enforcing the Ten Guidelines, becomes much nicer at the end.
Skip the cross, cue the music, we're outta here.
"Joshua" is popular in the surreal realm of "Christian" entertainment, where the standard fare is a bowl of sugar with honey and molasses on top. But to his credit, Anschutz took a different tack after backing this dud. He has backed a number of mainstream films, the best of which is "Ray" (see SP review). And in December his subsidiary, Walden Films (in conjunction with Disney), will release "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," the first feature film based on the Narnia children's books by C. S. Lewis.
Lewis, of course, was a highly literate Christian who spent his life arguing against the kind of "feel-good" faith that makes God into "a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves.'" For Lewis, the God of the Bible is "something more than mere kindness ... He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense."
Can this stern view succeed at the box office? The singular example I can think of is "Dead Man Walking," Tim Robbins's brilliant film about the Death Row ministry of Sister Helen Prejean. Some conservative Christians I know admire this film. But you won't find it listed on most of the sugary "Christian" websites, because after all, it was made by Hollywood liberals. What can I say? Maybe some of those who call for better movies while thumping the Bible ought to try reading it instead.